ILLINOIS — House Speaker Michael Madigan wants to remove a portrait and statue of a 19th century Illinois statesman and slaveowner along with the statue of another slave owner from the state capitol in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
While Stephen Douglas is best-known in Illinois for his debates with Abraham Lincoln, Madigan said he learned more about Douglas when he recently read Sidney Blumenthal’s “All the Powers of Earth.”
“I learned of Stephen Douglas’ disturbing past as a Mississippi slave owner and his abhorrent words toward people of color,” Madigan said in a statement Thursday. “I advised my staff to research and confirm the history to support removing the Douglas portrait from the House chamber. I became more resolute in my decision to remove the Douglas portrait as we witnessed the tragic killing of George Floyd and the bravery of so many who have stood up and spoken out against injustice that has never been fully addressed.”
Madigan has been Speaker of the House for all but two years since 1983. He also serves as the chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois.
Madigan said when the House returns in the fall, he will propose a resolution to remove the portrait of Douglas and replace it with a portrait of President Barack Obama, who he called ” a more fitting representation of the modern-day Democratic Party.” The House Speaker said he was looking into other ways to have the portrait covered immediately. The Douglas portrait holds a prominent spot in the House chamber.
“Memorializing people and a time that allowed slavery and fostered bigotry and oppression has no place in the Illinois House, where the work of all Illinoisans is conducted,” Madigan said in a statement. “We can only move forward in creating a more just world when these symbols of hate are removed from our everyday lives.”
Madigan also said he wants to remove statues of Douglas and Pierre Menard from the Capitol grounds. Menard was the first Lieutenant Governor of the state. He was elected in 1818.
“I am calling for the removal of the Douglas and Pierre Menard statues from the Capitol grounds, as well as moving the statue of Martin Luther King Jr. to a location of more prominence and honor,” Madigan said. “I ask that the Office of the Architect move expeditiously on this matter to take a vote in the coming days to remove these statues. Further, I am asking the Office and its board to work with all Illinoisans to conduct a thorough review of all statues, portraits and symbols on the Capitol grounds to ensure any inappropriate fixtures are removed and all feel welcome.”
Menard County, which split off from Sangamon County, was named after Pierre Menard. Lincoln, who abolished slavery as president, wrote and presented the bill to separate Menard County from Sangamon County in 1839. It passed the legislature the same year, according to the county’s website.
Menard’s mansion in Ellis Grove, which the state bought in 1929, is a State Historic Site operated by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The department’s website doesn’t mention that Menard was a slave owner. Slaves lived on the property for more than four decades, according to an article published in “Illinois Antiquity.”
Menard Correction Center, which is state’s largest prison, opened in 1878. A spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Corrections didn’t immediately respond to questions about whether the department was considering changing the name of the facility.
“Of course, removing these images does not erase our history, but it is one more step in acknowledging the suffering of so many and committing to creating a better Illinois for everyone,” Madigan said.